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Office 2010 Web Apps Make a Partial Debut

Microsoft finally began the promised, invitation-only technical preview of its Office 2010 Web Apps on Thursday, slightly later than originally promised. One caveat, though: it's not a beta test release yet and as such, it's missing a few critical capabilities and features.

Longer term, if Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) pulls everything off, it's going to be a heck of a deal for consumers. How does "free" sound?

When they're finished in the first half of next year, the Office Web Apps will be made available for free to nearly 500 million online users, including Live Hotmail, Live Messenger, and Live ID users.

"Starting today, a select group of SkyDrive customers will be invited to try out a technical preview of the online versions of Microsoft Office Excel, Word and PowerPoint, also known as the Office Web Apps, integrated right inside their Windows Live SkyDrive experience," said a company spokesperson on the Windows Live blog.

SkyDrive is Microsoft's online storage and retrieval service that is provided as part of its consumer Windows Live services. Microsoft has also settled on a naming scheme and will call them Office Web Apps.

Still the preview release is missing a couple of important features. For instance, the Word Web App will not initially allow editing of files, just viewing, and the OneNote note-taking application isn't available yet and will not be available during the tech preview, a second Microsoft spokesperson told InternetNews.com in an e-mail.

"People will be able to access Office Web Apps through the 'Documents' tab on Windows Live and as we announced … in July, businesses will be able to connect to the Office Web Apps hosted on SharePoint Server on-premises or through Microsoft Online services," the spokesperson added.

In a post on the Windows Live blog, a third spokesperson stood up for the preview.

"While the tech preview doesn't have all the cool features that will be available in the final offering, it does show off the exciting potential of having online versions of Excel, Word, and PowerPoint, and how you can easily access and work with your Office documents from anywhere with an Internet connection," the blog post said.

For Microsoft, the Office Web Apps are a big gamble. Office has been a mainstay of the company's bottom line for 20 years. Although the Web Apps are feature-limited, there is a fear that the Web Apps could be "good enough" in users' minds and undercut sales of its desktop products before the company is prepared to make that revenue shift.

The company first announced the Web-based versions of Office apps that run inside the three major browsers -- Internet Explorer, Mozilla Firefox, and Apple Safari -- at Microsoft's Professional Developers Conference this time last year.

Microsoft began technical previews of the PC-based apps suite at its Worldwide Partner Conference in mid-July. At that time, executives said that the tech preview of the Web-based versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote would begin in August.

However, Microsoft missed that date, though not by much -- unless you count the missing Word editing feature, and the whole OneNote Web App.

"With the technical preview, customers will be able to view Word documents, view, edit, and create Excel spreadsheets and PowerPoint presentations, and share documents with others," the second spokesperson said.

Office 2010 is scheduled to enter beta by the end of the year, and general availability is slated for the first half of 2010, Takeshi Numoto, corporate vice president of Microsoft Office, told InternetNews.com during the WPC in July.

The preview will be available in English and Japanese.